Health by stealth: Inside the food lab

Tasting the test products
Image caption Reporter Nicola Beckford (l) tries her hand at being a super-taster

Food manufacturers are increasingly looking to make their products healthier, without consumers noticing a change in taste. The Victoria Derbyshire programme visits one laboratory trying to provide an answer.

"I am quite a fussy eater, and like to make meals at home from scratch. I don't like to eat ready meals because I can taste every ingredient that goes into it," Barbara Amos explains, dressed in a white lab coat.

She has been a "super-taster" - or sensory panellist - at Marketing Sciences's laboratory in Kent for 10 years.

Her role involves tasting and critiquing food products so manufacturers can assess whether members of the public will notice if they reformulate their ingredients, or to help them develop a new product.

Image caption The super-tasters receive test products through a hatch

Under pressure to reduce levels of sugar, salt and saturated fat, manufacturers are increasingly turning to such people - selected for their heightened sense of taste - for help.

Government advisers recently suggested no more than 5% of daily calories should come from added sugar - half the level of the previous recommendation - while Tesco announced last week it would stop selling high-sugar drinks specifically aimed at children.

Reducing the cost of ingredients can also be a factor in companies choosing to use such laboratories.

I join the six panellists testing samples of strawberry jelly, which an unknown supplier is hoping to launch.

They compare an initial version, containing sugar, against other sugar-free prototypes - while I guess which one of two jellies is sugar free and which one is not. They are not tasting whether they enjoy the products themselves, but instead judging them against a list of criteria we devise to discuss aromas, flavours and textures.

The super-tasters offer suggestions such as "metallic", "over-ripe strawberry" and "astringent with a banana skin effect" as potential criteria, and are trained to describe products in a far more detailed way than ordinary consumers. My best offer to the discussion is "lemony".

After tasting each of the products, they then go into segregated booths and rate them - against the criteria - on a sliding scale.

"If our sensory panellists can't tell the difference [between test products], then normal consumers won't be able to either," Anna Herron, one of the company's directors explains.

Image caption The super-tasters develop a list of characteristics on which to judge the flavour of each jelly

"We can also show companies if they are reducing sugar, it's not just the sweetness that may be affected, but other aspects of the taste including mouth feel, bitterness and sourness."

This becomes especially important as the range of ingredients available to manufacturers grows.

"Historically, if they wanted to take out sugar they had to use artificial sweeteners, now they have the option of using natural sweeteners too," Ms Herron explains.

She says companies also look to react to wider changes in consumer taste.

"With something like salt, they may have reduced the [levels of it] a few years ago, but as our taste-buds acclimatise to less salt in our foods we can take it down a notch again."

Maintaining brand

For Barbara Gallani, from the Food and Drink Federation, consumer demand is the greatest factor behind companies' desire to make their products healthier.

But - perhaps surprisingly - companies are unwilling to inform the public of their products' added nutritional benefit.

"Although ingredient changes will always be reflected in the ingredients list, it is not always desirable to actively promote them to consumers. This is because manufacturers don't want to give the impression that they are compromising taste," she explains.

"Maintaining consumer base and brand is very important."

Image caption Each product is rated to show how changes to ingredients affect the product's taste

For the super-tasters themselves, choosing food can become a particularly difficult task.

"We quite often go out as a group to eat, and I know we're probably a nightmare. We have had quite a few occasions where we've sent meals back or complained," explains panellist Sue Reed.

"I won't eat smoked salmon any more. We did that quite a few years ago and we had a lot of it and I don't even like the smell of it any more," adds Ms Amos.

'Confused' tastebuds

The question on my mind, however, is whether my own tastebuds are up to scratch.

I'm confident I guessed the difference between the sugar-free jelly and the one that contained sugar. I'm wrong.

"It's something that consumers often get confused with," the laboratory's sensory manager Debbie Parker tells me, explaining where I had gone wrong. "They associate no added sugar with a cleaner taste, whereas a lot of sweeteners can have drying and bitter flavours to them."

I am genuinely disappointed. My dreams of being a super-taster are over.

Watch Nicola Beckford's full film on the Victoria Derbyshire website

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